Behind the Veil

Behind the Veil

Publication info

Madiha Mohsin, CARE Pakistan

The doctors wouldn’t tell me what had happened to my Arjun. He coughed and spat blood. I watched him withering. Some said he had cancer; some thought it was either tuberculosis or hepatitis. My husband of five years was dying slowly before my eyes, and there was nothing I could do to save him.

Arjun was a laborer. He earned little, but we could make our ends meet. I had six children with him. In our own small world, we were content and happy, but silently beneath our happiness a deadly disease grew up inside Arjun. He must have known about it, but he never expressed it. I came to know about his sickness when one day he coughed and threw up blood. That day on, my small world began to change – I took charge. I started working in the fields, and I did not save a penny for any purpose other than his treatment. I was strong, but when he died, I saw my strength fly away with his soul.

I am Agri, a Hindu woman. I have spent my entire 35 years of life in Village Dhani Partho which is located in the Mirpurkhas district of the Sindh province of Pakistan. I was 28 when my husband passed away.

As Arjun left, I spent 12 days crying. On the thirteenth day, my mother-in-law told me to leave the house. “You have no reason to stay here,” she told me. I left the house and took my children. I built a small hut and managed a shelter for myself and my kids, but that wasn’t sufficient. My children were starving. I couldn’t work and had to stay home until my iddah was over.[1] My brothers and parents refused to take me. It was a tough decision to make, but poverty and hunger does that to you: I sent my children off to work. At an age when my kids were supposed to carry books and go to school, they carried tools and went to labor.

I spent the days of my iddah in the small hut, crying and lamenting. I wondered why my happy life was turned upside down. I questioned Bhagwan in my prayers, “Why did you do this to me? What is this punishment for?” Days passed as I sat in the lonely corners of the small hut and wept. My iddah was over, but my misery wasn’t. It took me all my strength to pick myself up and face the world. I managed to wear my smile and set off to find work. I began to live off my irregular income.  

It was a scorching hot day, the kind you can only experience in a desert, and I had not found work. Fatigued and weary, I was walking back home and wondering what to feed my starving children when I met the Community Infrastructure Improvement Project (CIIP) staff. They were looking for women to work as road maintenance workers and had not found a positive response from our village. What else could I have wanted? I readily agreed and committed to not only join their team but also find and convince other women for them.

My family was not happy with me working on the roads. “It is not appropriate for women to build roads,” they said. Some thought I was still young, and therefore I should remarry. They believed that the marriage would save me from working. However, I had made up my mind. I was not afraid of working, and I was by no means ready to give up on my children. They were my responsibility, and I had to work hard to give them a better life.

The first day of work was the toughest. People gathered around us as if we were performing a circus. Some started hooting, and many women began to get discouraged. I kept motivating them to stay. “They will say all the rude things they have to say, and then they will get tired and leave," I kept telling my colleagues. I argued back with some of the bystanders and told them to get back to their lives and let us work. Slowly things changed. It was challenging in the beginning. Men would tease us, and some would pass offensive remarks too. Some uprooted our flags and threw them away, but we remained unbothered because we received various life skills trainings from CIIP.

I loved to attend the trainings; it was like a dream come true. I sometimes felt like these training sessions were a compensation for never having attended a school all my life. During the gender and human rights training, I often reflected on my life and thought how I still could change it and how I could make the lives of others better. I thought that the people of my village deserved a better life than they had been leading until then. I started mobilizing people around me, and slowly our new job of road maintenance started gaining acceptance among the community members.

During my employment with CIIP, I developed a passion for working for the people of my village. I had also gained a lot of self-confidence. I would facilitate all development organizations that came to our village for public welfare. At times people refused to cooperate with these organizations and forced them to leave, but I contacted them back and built their linkages with the community leaders. Soon after I finished roadwork and trainings introduced by CIIP, I got a job offer from ACTED.[2] They hired a group of women from my village and other nearby villages and appointed me as the President of all the clusters of women social mobilizers. During my three-month contract with ACTED, I received a salary of PKR 25,000 which was most beneficial for me. I helped the community members in construction of latrines and rooms. I also conducted hygiene sessions in which I gave trainings to women about hygiene practices and family planning awareness. I also worked voluntarily with the National Rural Support Program (NRSP) to identify the poorest of the poor among my own community members as project beneficiaries. I facilitated in conducting meetings and doing translations for these organizations. I received tremendous happiness from social work.

As a result of my mandatory savings and learnings from basic business management training by CIIP, I have been able to set up a small embroidery business. My business generates enough income, and I am able to send my children to school now. I am also looking forward to buying some livestock for milking. Not just that, but I am a woman of dignity and strength who is ready to accept challenges offered by life. I no more cover my face out of fear that people will gossip about me. The project helped me discover my lost identity which was hidden somewhere behind the veil.

End Notes:

[1] Iddah is a ritual of mourning among Muslim women when their husbands die. It has also become a cultural practice for Hindus living with Muslims. During Iddat, a woman does not leave her house, cannot meet a stranger man and cannot remarry. The length of iddah varies according to a number of circumstances.

[2] ACTED is a non-governmental organization with headquarters in Paris.